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Carrying it Forward: The Power of Mentorship in Architecture
How to find a mentor in architecture, why these relationships matter, and how strong community ties can help enrich your career.
Written by Lauren Diethelm
No one can make it through any career entirely on their own, and architecture is no exception. The support, guidance, and friendship that comes from forming authentic relationships with your peers in the profession can have lasting effects on your career success—whether you’re in a traditional mentor/mentee relationship, or in a community of like-minded people.
April Drake, AIA, LEED AP ID+C is a registered architect at HDR, as well as the president of AIA Northern Virginia. She’s also passionate about mentorship and community, and how those things can have a positive impact on the life and career of any architect, at any age. We sat down to learn more about what sparked this passion for her, and why she continues to prioritize mentorship and community relationships in her own career.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lauren Diethelm: Okay, so to start us off, what sparked your passion for mentorship? Can you talk through where that all started for you?
April Drake: Yeah. I think what sparked my passion was that I really just want to be there for others.
As humans, we've all had a bad day before. But being African American and also being a woman, there have been days where discrimination has hit me in ways that others maybe can't imagine or wouldn't imagine. Even myself, I didn't realize that it would come at me to that degree. And so mentoring is sometimes just being there for others and helping to guide them through those difficult kinds of situations.
There were people that were there for me and so I really just wanted to return that favor and be there for someone else who may unfortunately be going through that situation too.
LD: That makes a lot of sense. Can you say more about some of the people you mentioned that were there for you, and the impact that they had for you?
AD: Actually one of my first mentors I’m still in touch with today, and that relationship has changed from a mentor relationship to more of a friendship. It’s evolved over time. But that person has guided me through various situations during the early stages of my career—not only work, but also life. We worked through a lot of different things that would be coming at me as a growing adult in this industry and in the world. I’m so appreciative that this person is still in my life, and even though our relationship has evolved, just for them being there for me and listening.
Sometimes mentorship is really just about that: Being there and listening. It’s not necessarily always providing advice, but providing perspectives on what could be available to you. Evaluating different opportunities, how to look at them, how to think about them, but not necessarily telling you what to do about them, because ultimately it’s your decision.
It’s your life, and you have to decide what opportunities you’re going to take or forego. So sometimes being a mentor is just giving you some different things to digest, to think about before making that decision.
LD: That’s great. It’s sometimes so helpful to have that guidance and advice from someone who’s not your parent or your family—someone who’s a caring adult, but not necessarily your parent.
AD: Yes! And someone can be a mentor at any age, too. A mentor could be a peer, it could be someone above or below you at work. It’s really just about being a fresh perspective for things that you may not have been thinking about. Sometimes having someone in your circle to provide guidance that maybe comes from a different generation and is able to see it from a different vantage point really lets you open up your world.
LD: That’s really interesting to me, because when I think of a mentor it’s usually someone who has much more experience and is often older than you. Can you talk more about how someone you maybe wouldn’t have thought of as a mentor can actually be a good one?
AD: I think it’s hard to describe someone as a good mentor or a bad one. For me, I think anyone can be a “good” mentor no matter your age. It’s really just providing some guidance to someone during a time of need or just anywhere along the way.
I’ve had different mentorship relationships with people where I’m actually younger than they are. So I think you can be a mentor regardless of your age, your role, or anything else. It’s really just about being able to provide that guidance for someone.
I think it’s also hard to say anyone is a bad mentor, because we’re all bad mentors sometimes. But I think the biggest thing that makes a successful mentor is anyone who has the time, the capacity, and the perspective to provide to others.
At any given stage of their career, whether or not it’s a peer, where they have a more senior title at work, it’s really just about taking the time to listen to someone and then seeing what advice or guidance you can give them.
I actually like the word guidance better because advice seems like you’re telling someone what to do. But guidance is allowing them to choose for themself what path they’re going to take. It’s just helping them outline the different paths, the different pros and cons of those paths so they can decide the level of risk they feel comfortable with.
Because sometimes you may not make a certain decision because it’s a high-risk decision, but other people have a higher tolerance for risk and are willing to take a chance, and it comes out beautifully. Just being there to show the different paths is what being a mentor is.
So that for me is what really outlines a good mentor. And I think a lot of us who may be older have failed sometimes at being a good mentor. Not that we’ve overly provided advice or overstepped, but maybe we’ve overcommitted ourselves in different ways and didn’t have the time to actually listen and sit down to offer that guidance.
And so I think that we all have to make sure that if we do want to be mentors that we’re very honest with ourselves and the time commitment it takes to ensure it’s a successful relationship. We want them to walk away from our interactions feeling positive and hopeful—not thinking “Oh, I’m never going to get another mentor because this one doesn’t make time for me. This mentor is always so busy, they’re always canceling our meetings at the last minute, or they’re preoccupied and not really engaged in the conversation.”
Another thing I think is that if we’re going to be good mentors, we have to realize that we have to be more open about our own past, about the things we continue to struggle with. Because people think we have it all figured out—and we still don’t! We still need mentorship ourselves sometimes too.
So just making sure you have that time to commit, if you want to be a mentor, is key. You need to have the time and space to be able to be aware of that person’s needs, and when they’re really needing to talk to you, you can see that they’re at a place where they could really use some guidance. You have to set aside some time in your life to do this right.
LD: This plays into my next question, which is about how when someone is looking for a mentor, it can be a really vulnerable experience, and I think this is part of why—I think people think “This person is really busy, I don’t want to take up too much of their time, I don’t want to be another thing on their plate, so I’m just never going to ask.” Do you have any advice for overcoming that feeling?
AD: Yeah. I think we all continue to have that vulnerability where no matter what your age, when you meet someone new who you feel like could contribute to your life in a meaningful way, how do we ask them if they would be our mentor?
And actually it’s just to ask them. That’s the easiest way to meet that person. You can do this in an email too, if that’s more comfortable for you. Maybe you meet that person at an event and get their contact information—follow up with them. And just say, “I really enjoyed our conversation there. I know you may be busy, but I would love to learn more from you and I feel like you could have a positive impact on my career.” And then you can see if they’re free, even if it’s just once a quarter, to get a coffee and talk.
And just see how they respond. If they do respond, then it’s most likely that they really do have the time to do it. Again, that’s where we as mentors have to be honest with ourselves about our time commitment. But if they respond and you all get a coffee, maybe that turns into lunch.
So I think the best way to start is really just to ask. I would also give the advice to the person being asked that you need to be honest with that person if you don’t have the time. Say something like “In this season I’m really busy, but I think you have great potential in this career, and I hope to be able to connect with you in the future.”
And then in the meantime, see if you can set them up with someone you’re close with that might be a good fit too. You know, they’ve already built up the courage to ask you, so to be turned down is rough. But if you’re able to take the time to introduce them to someone else, then maybe that person can get coffee with them instead.
So yeah. My best advice is to just ask.
LD: The easiest answer and the hardest thing to do at the same time.
AD: Yeah, true. I mean, I think the good thing is that in this time, a good email is an easy way to do it. Maybe you only met that person once, but you can remind them where you met and what you talked about, and maybe include your LinkedIn with a photo.
Because sometimes people don't remember names, but they will remember faces. Then they can relate you back to the conversation you have, and then that can carry forward into more.
LD: My next question is about supervisors during AXP hours—is that someone who might be a good person to approach for a longer-term mentoring relationship?
AD: I think it really just depends on the person. A lot of us have different supervisors who sign our AXP forms that we’re able to develop a relationship with, and some may not have that opportunity. Maybe their supervisors are a little more disconnected from them, so they sign their forms but don’t have that real close-knit working relationship with them that you would want to have with a mentor.
So I think when it comes to your AXP hours, you don’t have to focus on the person signing your documents. Sometimes a mentorship relationship develops but it’s not always called mentorship in a way. Sometimes it's just getting through a project together as a team. At the end of it, you realize you’ve actually grown as individuals and teammates and in your career.
So while you may not have had this true mentorship experience, you do end up learning from the people on your team, so mentorship comes in all different types of fashions. It can take shape in a variety of ways. It can take place in a true mentor/mentee relationship where you asked someone and they agreed, but it can also take shape on a project team. Maybe between you and your senior PA or a project manager or just anyone you’re working with on that team who’s giving you guidance on how to get the project done.
And as you all become more comfortable with each other, you then may be able to ask them questions that aren’t specifically project related. And so then a relationship grows there. That can happen when you’re volunteering too, if you’re involved in AIA or NOMA or any of those organizations in the industry. Those are ways to meet people who could be your peers, older or younger than you, but they can all provide positive direction for your career.
LD: As you were saying that it reminded me that we’ve talked before about community, and how we kind of sneakily form all these organic relationships in our lives and then all of a sudden we realize “Wow, they’ve actually impacted my career so much more than I thought they did.” How if you’re intentional with how you talk to people and interact with them, you can actually get a lot of guidance—you don’t always have to formally ask.
AD: Exactly. Mentorship can take so many different shapes. We were talking about vulnerability before, and how weird it can be to be like “How do I ask someone to be my mentor now? Do I have to formally ask them?” But really sometimes the relationship develops, whether it’s from a team perspective or a volunteer assignment you all did together, and then you continue to discuss different topics and ask each other questions without there ever being a specific conversation or title to your relationship as mentor and mentee.
So keeping that in mind, you can truly have a community of people in different aspects of your work and career. And even in life, too. Many of us now have looked at ways to have the mentor/mentee relationship in a peer circle by having accountability partners who you can tell your goals to and how to plan to achieve them, and then they hold you accountable to them.
You know, “Hey, you said you wanted to have this done by February and it’s now March, do you have steps to take to help you achieve it?” So that’s another way you can have really meaningful relationships with a group of people that can positively impact your life.
LD: It’s like a real life SMART goal. Makes it a lot easier, having people to check in on you.
AD: That's really funny—yeah, it’s like that!
LD: Awesome. Okay, I think that was everything I had. Is there anything else that you would want to add that I didn't ask?
AD: The only thing I would add is that we talked earlier about putting yourself out there, and I wanted to also mention ways you can even go about connecting with different people who could be your mentor. And I would say when you go to events, whether that’s a conference or a seminar or a workshop, take a look at the attendees who’ll be there. Especially if you have that list in advance, maybe Google some of the people that will be there, maybe try to find their photos and what they do. That way you can kind of seek them out when you get there to start a conversation.
Just to get a feel for who they are, as well. Because sometimes we don’t know if we really want someone to be our mentor until we actually connect with them and see if we have any common interests.
And if you don’t know who’s going to be there, try to make it a goal to meet three or four new people, and just be very intentional about it. Just try to spot a few people, you don’t have to know who they are. And just try to spark up a conversation about the event.
And then for us introverts, once you meet those three or four people, then feel free to go stand in the corner and eat and have a drink and don’t worry about talking to anyone else after that. But in those conversations, try to get their name, where they work, what they do, and their contact information. And then after, especially if you felt like it was a great discussion and it was super easy to talk to them and they made you feel comfortable, just send them an email afterwards.
You don’t even have to ask them to be your mentor or anything in this email—just send them a note and say “Thanks for chatting with me, I thought we had a great conversation, and I hope we see each other again in the future.”
And that way if and when you see them again, you already have that in with them. And so your network continues to grow. Because as you build your network, you’re building mentors, even if they’re not called your mentor officially.
LD: I think that’s also so helpful because people get nervous, or they don’t want to ask this person for something if they just met them. But you don’t actually have to ask them for anything, you can just be two people having a conversation.
AD: No, you don’t! And I think a lot of times people just love a thank you note afterwards, so that email can really go a long way. And it really helps you build your confidence, if you struggle with networking, having to sit down and be intentional to write that note. Taking the time to do so can really help you build your confidence until it becomes easy.
And then once you do it once or twice you can take those old emails and maybe change a few words and keep sending them out. And it’s not being fake, it’s not just duplicating. It’s trying to be intentional about building your network and you’re doing it in a way that’s genuine. Because you’re saying I recognize this is a weak area I have and I’m being intentional about strengthening it.
LD: Yeah, totally. Something I always have to remind myself too is that they also came to this event to meet people. So nobody is going to be like “Why is this person trying to talk to me?” That’s why they came too, to have those conversations.
AD: That’s right. We’ve talked before about a conference you went to where they asked all the people in a session to raise their hand if you were there by yourself, so other people who were also there alone could come be friends. And I thought that was the greatest thing—I wish they had done that at some of the conferences I’ve been to.
LD: I was super grateful they did that, and I think that’s a little nugget I’m going to take for myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be running a conference or anything but I’m going to remember they did that and find ways to facilitate that feeling for other people, if I’m ever in the spot to do it.
AD: Yeah, I feel the same way. You know, it didn’t even happen to me, and I also don’t know if I’ll run a conference, but any time I may be in a situation or a colleague may be in a situation like that, that’s going to be advice I’m going to give them. Just be like “Hey, you’re the only one going to this conference, see if they have a first-timers happy hour or something like that where you can connect with other new people.”
This is one of those things where those little tidbits of advice are just my way of connecting with people and trying to pass along any information I get. So when I get great information like what you just gave me, I then try to give it to other people. I don’t hold it for myself.
And I think that’s what makes people a good mentor. It’s not holding in the good information you’ve learned along the way. It’s actually spreading it out to others and hoping that it will then spread out from them to the next level.
Because we don’t need to hold in the good stuff. That’s the stuff we really want to spread out into the world, and hope that it multiplies out from us to others.